Philippians 2:12 (ESV) … “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”
When the Lord Jesus was on earth, he gave us an incredible example of selfless humility and service to other. Paul is writing the believers of Philippi to encourage them and to teach them to follow that example of Christ. Paul uses not only Jesus but also himself as an example to follow in the living out of the Christian faith.
Our focal verse has confused many at times. Paul is commending the past obedience of these believers and encouraging more future obedience in Christ. Paul did not say, “work for your salvation.” We only need to observe Ephesians 2:8–9 to know that isn’t what he means. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
They have been saved by grace. Now they are to bring the salvation to completion, to live out the fact that they have been saved. The verb “work out” carries the meaning of “work to full completion,” such as working out a problem in mathematics. In Paul’s day it was also used for “working a mine,” that is, getting out of the mine all the valuable ore possible; or “working a field” so as to get the greatest harvest possible.[i]
The purpose God wants us to achieve is Christlikeness, “to be conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). There are problems in life, but God will help us to “work them out.” Our lives have tremendous potential, like a mine or a field, and He wants to help us fulfill that potential.
It is important to note that this purpose is achieved “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15). Paul does not admonish us to retreat from the world and go into a spiritual isolation ward. It is only as we are confronted with the needs and problems of real life that we can begin to become more like Christ. The Pharisees were so isolated and insulated from reality that they developed an artificial kind of self-righteousness that was totally unlike the righteousness God wanted them to have. Consequently, the Pharisees forced a religion of fear and bondage on the people (read Matt. 23), and they crucified Christ because He dared to oppose that kind of religion. It is not by leaving the world but by ministering to it that we see God’s purpose fulfilled in our lives.[ii]